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The Sympathetic Villain | Why The Bad Guy Is Taking Over

Today we’ve moved beyond The Age of the Antihero to center someone even worse: The Sympathetic Villain. Increasingly, we’re seeing stories with a villain-protagonist, who might not be contrasted with any likable, featured hero. A story about a Sympathetic Villain is a bold experiment, but it might not always work. Yet at their best, the Sympathetic Villain is a means for articulating a fascinating critique of society and its mores—as we can see from some enduring cinema classics who were actually about sympathetic villains all along. When it succeeds, the Sympathetic Villain story makes us see ourselves in the villain—and see the villainy in ourselves.

TRANSCRIPT

Today we’ve moved beyond The Age of the Antihero to center someone even worse: The Sympathetic Villain.

The antihero story typically makes us wonder where its murky or mixed hero will end up on the good-versus-evil spectrum. We’ve also discussed the Antihero 2.0 narrative, which doesn’t expect its character to improve and encourages more distance and moral judgment. But a story that empathizes with a straight-up villain asks us to identify with a person we know clearly is wrong, without offering any excuses or ambiguities.

Increasingly, we’re seeing stories with a villain-protagonist, who might not be contrasted with any likable, featured hero. The story might try to get us on their side by making the villain a victim, or a lesser evil who faces off against someone worse. Or they might still face off against a hero but be what’s called an anti-villain — the flipside of the antihero: a villain with heroic tendencies.

A story about a Sympathetic Villain is a bold experiment, but it might not always work — especially if it goes to such extremes to make them sympathetic that they’re no longer really a villain. Or, if it mixes up their villainy with weird social cues that lead to the story, sending a confused message. Yet at its best, the sympathetic villain story is a means for articulating a fascinating critique of society and its mores. It can make us see ourselves in the villain — and the villainy in ourselves.

We’ve come up with a set of criteria for when the Sympathetic Villain story works best, and when it doesn’t:

1. Actually let them be a villain.

If the writing can’t decide whether this person is a villain or an antihero or a victim, it can end up muddying the waters and making us wonder why this story exists.

But while preserving this villainy, the writing should also:

2. Make us empathize or understand.

That doesn’t require making the character likable — and it’s often best if it’s clear that they’re wrong — but we do need to participate in why they make the choices they do.

Finally, this type of story should:

3. Use this person’s villainy to articulate a clear theme or message.

The whole point of putting a spotlight on a more complex or compelling villain is to reveal something incisive about the darkness in human existence and society. So the story needs to be intentional about what philosophy its villain and the characters they’re pitted against represent.

How to Empathize with a Villain

There are several different ways that stories convince us to side with the villains — with different emotional results.

One increasingly popular approach is to make them the protagonist. In recent years, a number of villain-protagonist narratives have given us an origin story for or centered a known villain character who was previously more two-dimensionally evil.

Cruella de Vil: “From the very beginning, I realized I saw the world differently from everyone else. That didn’t sit well with some people.” - Cruella, 2021

We can see an early example of this trend in the 2003 musical Wicked, based on the 1995 novel, which considers if the ultimate cardboard villain — whose actual name is “The Wicked Witch of the West” — might have a different point of view about what happened in The Wizard of Oz. The sympathetic-villain-protagonist gets a chance to tell their side of the story.

Some of the most influential streaming hits of the 2010s — like House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and Succession — all hooked audiences on the drama of centering enjoyably bad villains who never pretended to be otherwise.

To be “sympathetic,” the villain doesn’t have to be a person we’d like in real life: Cambridge Dictionary defines a character being sympathetic as “described or shown in such a way that you are able to understand the character’s feelings, with the result that you like them.”

Joe Goldberg: “She pretended to love me. All I ever wanted from Beck was to be seen, really seen and accepted.” - You 2x10

And to an extent, just the act of making a villain the protagonist, at the center of a story structure, is enough to make you connect to them.

But a second technique a number of these stories use to elicit greater feeling is to make them a victim.

A victimized-villain story banks on the fact that we often feel for people who’ve been hurt. And today’s victimized-villain plots often channel a broader pattern of how our society cruelly mistreats people of a certain class, race, or gender, to trigger our sense of injustice. Maleficent, Birds of Prey, and Gone Girl explain the villainy of their female protagonists in how they’ve been done wrong by men. Joker and Spider-Man: Homecoming feature villains who are formed by class inequality.

In Black Panther, Erik Killmonger’s quarrel with the movie’s hero is rooted in justified outrage over the unfairness of having lost his father as well as having grown up as a Black man in a racist society.

Museum Curator: “These items aren’t for sale.”

Erik Killmonger: “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price or did they take it like how they took everything else?” - Black Panther

Killmonger is perhaps one of our time’s best examples of the anti-villain, who operates in the same space as a traditional villain against a hero-protagonist, but whom the movie makes us feel for and understand.

In their mind, the victimized villain feels their morally unscrupulous behavior is justified because of what they’ve been through.

It’s also true that a lot of people who do bad things have been victims of traumas or abuse. And ultimately these stories emphasize that villainy is a cycle, often perpetuated from the top down. Still, if the “victim track” goes too far in fully humanizing characters or blaming their behavior on external causes, it risks making the sympathetic villain not a villain at all. Sometimes stories are more interesting and coherent if they don’t overjustify or mitigate this character’s evil but really own the badness.

Thus, rather than softening their villain’s edges, some of the most effective sympathetic villain stories use a third technique: They “trick” us into villainy.

Here, the villain-protagonist starts out as appealing, charismatic, or heroic in order to get us on their side, and the story cons us into continuing to root for the villain even as they become more and more overtly evil. Perhaps the best example of this would be Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He’s presented to us as an idealist — the decorated soldier who’s not like his mafia family. When he does eventually turn, it’s under pressure to defend his family. As the trilogy goes on and Michael becomes a ruthless, cold-blooded boss, he alienates, hurts, and even murders members of that very family

Michael Corleone: “Only don’t tell me that you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and it makes me very angry.” - The Godfather

Yet we retain that romantic image of him as the tragic hero, forced down this path by a world that’s immoral. Most masterfully, the story gets us to root for his evil choices themselves, as we’re made to feel that people who betray or wrong him deserve punishment for not living up to his sense of honor. So it’s not that we like him in spite of his villainy; we like that he unlocks a villainy in us that might feel quite good.

You can also make a case that some of the characters who defined the age of the TV antihero took us in with this same trickery technique, and were actually sympathetic villains in antihero’s clothing.

Like Michael, Tony Soprano starts out feeling like a slightly more optimistic spin on the mafioso — he loves his family, and despite the nature of his business, he seems to conduct it in a semi-decent way: he looks out for the other guys in his crew, seems to make rational and fair decisions, and strikes both his coworkers and us as strong leadership material

Tony Soprano: “More is lost by indecision than a wrong decision.” - The Sopranos 4x13

These facts let us justify how much we might like or enjoy watching Tony even while we watch him do blatantly horrible things. But over time, he leads everyone in his life to misery, if not death. And his therapist Dr. Melfi concludes that he’s a sociopath. So the gradual yet shocking reveal of that show is that we (like Melfi) have been suckered into making excuses for the fact that he was a straight-up villain all along.

Game of Thrones followed this trickery path in an extreme way by turning its inspirational heroine Daenerys Targaryen into a villain in the final season — but many fans found her shift too sudden and drastic. So that reaction shows that it’s important to include viewers in the character’s transformation, letting us understand and participate in why the character’s villainy gets expressed.

And this leads to our fourth technique: Give us an ideological or mission-driven Sympathetic Villain who’s motivated by a beautiful-sounding idea.

This villain probably thinks they’re a good guy — or at least, they started out that way.

Daenerys Targaryen: “I will answer injustice with justice.” - Game of Thrones 4x04

But ultimately, the takeaway is usually that pursuing an abstract greater good isn’t worth it if you have to act like a villain to succeed. Stories about the sympathetic villain are a warning — setting out with good intentions isn’t enough, and it’s easier than you think to end up on the wrong side.

The Message in the Villainy

A key reason the villain exists in the story is to challenge the hero philosophically — to express a mindset or counterargument that the hero must confront and defeat. So making your villain compelling is a powerful way to make their counterargument stronger — forcing us to really consider this ideological challenge so that the hero’s ultimate moral victory means more.

At its best, the sympathetic villain story can be deeply effective at articulating a wider critique of society. From The Godfather to Goodfellas to The Sopranos, sympathetic mafia villains yield a scathing critique of the American dream, and how it uses the romance of family as a smokescreen for ruthless, selfish capitalism.

Tony Soprano: “It’s business, we’re soldiers, we follow codes.”

Dr. Melfi: “Does that justify everything you do?” - The Sopranos 2x09

On the other hand, it’s easy for the message of a sympathetic villain story to get messy, especially if it’s unclear which character — and which philosophy — we’re meant to root for.

Some stories try to solve for this by pitting the sympathetic-villain-protagonist against an even worse villain. Other stories make the villain’s case stronger by cutting down the hero figure. Billions introduces its central shady hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod as a rags-to-riches underdog, while his supposed “good guy” antagonist, US Attorney Chuck Rhoades, is portrayed as a child of privilege who’s just as unscrupulous and determined to win by any means necessary.

But making the villain too likable (or the hero too unlikable) can obscure what the intended takeaway should be.

Director Akira Kurosawa wrote that in his film Drunken Angel, the “innate and powerful personal qualities” of the actor playing the villain, Toshiro Mifune, were actually a problem because “the theme of the film became somewhat indistinct.”

Arguably, Black Panther risked falling into this trap with charismatic villain Erik Killmonger — since a number of viewers left thinking he was right, though in that case, it seems intentional that Killmonger’s world view is not written off.

Erik Killmonger: “When black folks started revolutions, they never had the firepower… or the resources to fight their oppressors. Where was Wakanda?” - Black Panther

The Dark Knight walks this line due to the charisma of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but the movie takes pains to disprove the Joker’s philosophy that only social norms hold us back from doing evil. 2019’s Joker gives the same character’s mindset more validity by making him the protagonist and casting a damning light on Bruce Wayne’s unfair privilege. Yet by reframing this story so drastically that the hero is held in contempt and the villain has good reasons, does the film risk implicitly endorsing the villain’s actions?

Since the villain’s philosophy is such a key part of why they exist, when a story centers or emphasizes a villain, it’s especially important to be attentive to how they relate to wider cultural cues.

I Care A Lot incorporates feminist rhetoric and a gay love story into its portrait of heartless “guardian” Marla Grayson who preys on elders to make money — but this arguably ends up making the film feel both misogynistic and homophobic.

After first priming us to expect a moral about America’s healthcare and legal systems, it confusingly sets up her fight with her antagonist, Peter Dinklage’s inept Russian mafia boss, as vaguely feminist.

Marla Grayson: “You can’t convince a woman to do what you want… then you call her a bitch

and threaten to kill her.” - I Care A Lot

And it then further confuses its message by giving us reasons to sympathize with the various angry men who attack her, since she’s preyed on their mothers.

By contrast, Gone Girl’s use of an angry woman villain-protagonist (also played by Rosamund Pike) works because the movie’s central theme is how men stoke female rage.

Like I Care a Lot, The One risks sending a weird message about gender politics as it also stars an evil “girl boss” villain-protagonist who gets attacked by and hurts disgruntled men while spouting feminist rhetoric. But like Gone Girl, it does a better job of using its villain’s behavior to express a clear theme: CEO Rebecca sells a fairytale of romance of finding your perfect chemical match, but she falters because she doesn’t know the real meaning of love.

While it’s helpful to put us in the villain’s place and include us in their feelings, the Sympathetic Villain Story is often best served by avoiding any mixed messages that this person might be “right” or someone we’d want to emulate. This line in The One,

James Whiting: “You think you’re a bad person, but you’re not.” - The One 1x08

is intentionally followed by a flashback confirming that, nope, she definitely is a bad person (and if we had any doubt, the season ends playing a cover of “Friend of the Devil”). Throughout cinema, some of the most successful stories with villain protagonists work because they don’t bother to make this person traditionally likable.

Whereas Joker’s Arthur Fleck is positioned like an underdog to root for, one of the film’s inspirations, Taxi Driver, takes pains to make us uncomfortable with protagonist Travis Bickle’s repulsive views. Films like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange use somewhat terrifying villain-protagonists to put an idea under a lens.

CONCLUSION

The age of the antihero was grounded in a desire to understand what creates these people. Yet this new age of the sympathetic villain is more about understanding the structures that enable bad people. And there’s actually optimism in this trend. It shows we’re willing to look honestly at villains onscreen and off — to hold ourselves and our society accountable, instead of making antiheroic excuses. The Sympathetic Villain story makes us identify with a devil in order to confront the demons within — and just might offer us a useful exorcism.

Patrick Bateman: “My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others.” - American Psycho

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